The controversial Digital Security Act, or DSA, which human rights advocates have long criticised for its purposefully broad application and ambiguous language intended to silence dissent, is once more at the centre of the uproar caused by the death in custody of a government employee and the dubious arrest of a journalist for a major Bangladeshi newspaper.
Both the government staff member and the journalist were sued under the law.
Several domestic and international rights organisations reiterated their opposition to the law on Thursday, saying the law is nothing but “a weapon to muzzle voices from exercising freedom of expression.”
The government shored up its support again for the law, saying that since its enactment, the law fulfilled its purposes to secure the digital space and cybercrimes, except for one or two instances.
The Left Democratic Alliance staged a demonstration in Dhaka on Thursday, demanding to scrap the law. Human chains were formed in Jahangirnagar and Rajshahi universities with a similar demand.
Family members of Sultana Jasmine, a 45-year-old office assistant at a local union land office in Naogaon Sadar Upazila, on Mar 24, said she died under mysterious circumstances in custody after she was picked up two days earlier by a unit of the Rapid Action Battalion, an elite Bangladesh law enforcing agency which has been under US sanctions since December 2021 for its alleged records of gross human rights violation.
Jasmine’s family alleged she was tortured in custody, questioning the whereabouts of Jasmine for hours after she was picked up.
Joint Secretary Enamul Haque, who works at the Rajshahi divisional commissioner’s office, filed a case against Jasmine and a few others, alleging the land office assistant and another person duped unemployed people by promising them jobs by opening a fake social media ID with his name.
The case was filed with Rajpara Police Station in Rajshahi after doctors at Rajshahi Medical College Hospital pronounced Jasmine dead of internal haemorrhage in her brain.
Later, a RAB spokesperson said its members picked up Jasmine for quizzing around 10 am on Mar 22. It claimed she fell ill immediately after her detention in the presence of Enamul.
The High Court sought the post-mortem report on Jasmine and the names of the officers involved in her quizzing.
Meanwhile, a staff correspondent of the vernacular daily Prothom Alo, Samsuzzaman Shams, was sent to prison pending investigation by a court in Dhaka on Thursday on charges brought under the Digital Security Act.
A lawyer named Moshiur Malek filed the case on Wednesday night, naming Editor Matiur Rahman as one of the accused, and saying he is responsible for the report's publication, reads the case documents.
Dhaka Metropolitan North Jubo League leader Md Golam Kibria filed another case for spreading “false and defamatory” information at the Tejgaon Police Station. Shams is the sole accused in the case.
Shams was detained from his home early on Wednesday morning by men identifying as the police’s Criminal Investigation Department personnel before the news of the Tejgaon case against him came to light.
On Mar 26, the Prothom Alo published a report that carried Shams’s byline. The report was described as "anti-state" by Awami League leaders.
“What will we do with independence if there’s no food to fill our stomachs?” a labourer was quoted as saying on the Mar 26 online version of Prothom Alo. He indicated that people sweat over how to secure rice, meat and fish every day.
His comment was reflected in the headlines, but the report used the photo of a child also mentioned in the article.
The headline and the image were used to post a card on social media, which stirred considerable controversy. Leaders of the ruling party Awami League said the report contained 'seditious' materials.
Later, Prothom Alo removed the photo and changed the report's headline. It also removed the social media post.
GOVERNMENT STEADFAST IN DEFENDING DSA
While commenting on Jasmine’s death on Thursday, Law Minister Anisul Huq confirmed that the RAB personnel involved with the detention of Jasmine were removed from duty, but he did not see any valid reason to blame the law for her death.
“She died before the case was filed,” he said.
Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan also faced questions about Shams’s detention and subsequent arrest on charges under the act on Thursday.
Drawing examples from similar laws enacted in the US and the UK, Information Minister Hasan Mahmud said the law was codified to secure the people of Bangladesh in cyberspace, and that many people, including journalists, 'reaped' the benefit of the law.
However, some senior government ministers, including Anisul, lately made it public that the government has been discussing the possibility of bringing in some amendments to the law.
On Mar 14, after a discussion with civil society regarding the law, Anisul said: “Several steps have already been taken to identify some of the aspects of the law, which we will discuss with the stakeholders.”
CONDEMNATION AT HOME AND ABROAD
Several groups of journalists, free speech advocates and human rights activists have condemned the arrest of Shams and the charges against him and Editor Matiur Rahman under the Digital Security Act.
They demanded that the government scrap the controversial law, which has been criticised for its abuse of the media and freedom of expression since its passage.
New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists or CPJ demanded the Bangladesh authorities must immediately drop all investigations into the staff of the Prothom Alo newspaper in retaliation for its work and allow its employees to do their jobs freely, calling the Digital Security Act a “draconian law” .
“The authorities must immediately release Shams and cease abusing the legal process against journalists, which produces a chilling effect on the media,” said Carlos Martinez de la Serna, CPJ’s programme director.
Reporters Without Border said Shams faces “spurious charges in reprisal for his reporting” in a “growing crackdown on government critics”.
“Make no mistake, the arrest of Shamsuzzaman Shams and the case filed against Matiur Rahman have no legal basis and are clearly an act of intimidation by the government towards all journalists. We demand that the charges filed against them be dropped at once and, with less than a year to go to parliamentary elections, we call on Sheikh Hasina’s government to respect journalistic pluralism and independence, or else these elections will lack all democratic credibility,” said Daniel Bastard, head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk.
The South Asia wing of ARTICLE 19, a London-based organisation, expressed “deep concern on Prothom Alo editor being sued under the Digital Security Act” in a tweet.
Transparency International, Bangladesh condemned the way Shams was arrested. The arrest of the journalist has created a “horrific example of how to control the media and subdue it if necessary”.
In this way, the government is using the Digital Security Act to suppress dissent, people’s voice and free media, alleged TIB Executive Director Iftekharuzzaman.
Legal rights group Ain O Salish Kendra has protested against the death of Jasmine in custody and the arrest of Shams, demanding cancellation of the Digital Security Act.
It demanded the formation of a commission to identify those responsible for Jasmine’s death, questioning the fraud allegation brought against her under the controversial law.
About Shams’s arrest, ASK said the law minister and other officials promised steps to stop the abuse of the law, but that has not happened.
Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust, Democratic Lawyers Association, Bangladesh Mahila Parishad, and 41 citizens, including Professor Anu Muhammad and photographer Shahidul Alam, also issued statements demanding cancellation of the law and the cases against Shams.